The Chapbook Interview: Marianne Kunkel on MFA thesis to PHD workshop to publication

How did your forthcoming chapbook, The Laughing Game, begin?

During my second semester as a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I took a poetry workshop from Professor Grace Bauer and in it we discussed poetry chapbooks a great deal. Our final project in the class was to compile a chapbook of poetry, which really helped me start thinking about how to best organize my poems in book form. Of course, it wasn’t until more than a year after that class ended that my chapbook was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press.

How long did you spend writing it? How many versions did it go through before you reached the final?

About half of the poems in the book I wrote as an MFA student at the University of Florida from 2005 to 2007. It’s exciting that these poems made it into a chapbook; many of them don’t fit the theme of the full-length book manuscript I’m currently working on and wouldn’t have found a home there. The Laughing Game went through at least three versions—different poems, different order—before reaching its final version. I revised it after receiving Professor Bauer’s feedback, and then again after receiving the feedback of my dissertation chair Professor Stephen Behrendt, and once more after I showed it to my buddy (and chapbook extraordinaire with three of his own) UNL PhD student Trey Moody.

I remember workshopping an earlier version of “Tub Home” in the Alicia Ostriker master poetry workshop in 2011 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It’s a powerful poem. Tell me more about the “resilience” theme that you address in such poems as “Tub Home.” How did you decide upon the order of the poems, the narrative arc, and the necessity for laughter?

It’s increasingly important to me that my poetry have an affirmative, or redemptive, quality to it. “Tub Home” is a fun little poem about a child making camp in a bathtub, but its ending turns sad when the child learns the impermanence of her new home. I tried to carefully balance feelings of joy and sadness—oftentimes these emotions intermingle in my poems—in The Laughing Game and open and close the book with images of laughter. For me, laughter can be a “game” in that it’s a learned response or an emotional Band-Aid, but I also promote its extremely instinctive and healing nature. We can find our way out of sadness by discovering opportunities to laugh.

How much time did you spend to find a home for it?

About a year exactly. I didn’t submit it to presses (I sent it to about 20) until six months after I conceived it. Before Finishing Line Press accepted it for publication, The Laughing Game was a finalist of The Sow’s Ear Poetry Chapbook Competition, which I took as a sign that it was in good shape. I remember I couldn’t believe when Finishing Line Press emailed me with an acceptance. I called Trey and read him the email to make sure it wasn’t a joke. Ha!

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance from Finishing Line Press? Many of the poems in The Laughing Game were previously published in print. Did you seek to publish in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection?

When I began submitting poems for publication at the University of Florida, I was definitely enamored of the long-running print journals—I affectionately call them dinosaurs. More and more, I’m seeing authors that I admire publish exclusively online and so these days I submit poems to both print and online journals. It might seem ideal that all the poems in a chapbook be published elsewhere first, but I learned from The Laughing Game that some poems speak louder within a book, pushing the narrative from point A to B, than outside of it without this context. That’s an important lesson, I think.

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Tell me about that cover art, design, and layout. How involved were you with the selection of cover art and the overall chapbook cover, layout, and design?

Oh, one of my favorite parts of the book! The cover image, called “Toasted Wheat,” is a painting by my friend Daniel McFarlane, an exceptionally talented artist from Houston. He and I met while were both MFA students at the University of Florida. I love his work; he paints on slabs of wood and plays a lot with bold color and dimensions. I was thrilled when I found a painting that echoed qualities of my chapbook—in the painting is a box that to me looks like the box of a board game, with bright and dark colors bursting from it. Very cool. As for the layout and design, that’s the terrific work of graphic designer Jenny Alessandrelli, the sister of my friend Jeff, a UNL PhD student in poetry.

Has being the managing editor of Prairie Schooner shaped your writing and sense of the publishing industry in some ways?

I hope so! So much good writing finds its way to Prairie Schooner and I feel lucky that I get to read a lot of it. Reading improves writing, you hear, and I notice when I sit down to write now I sometimes try out lyrical approaches—turns of phrase, surprising images, startling voltas—that I’ve read in others’ poems. I have about five years of experience (internships and jobs) in the publishing industry, so I’m less surprised by this part of my Prairie Schooner work. One of the most difficult and rewarding tasks of Prairie Schooner Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes is finding the exceptional in a stack of very good work, so I’m tickled that Finishing Line Press found my chapbook worthy of publication.

What strategies have you been trying to promote The Laughing Game?

Self-promotion is new to me, and I admit I’m a little awkward about it, but the staff of Finishing Line Press does a fine job offering promotion tips to their authors. Like many people, I’m connected to a large community on Facebook so I announced my chapbook this way and have posted about it several times. Thanks to your and Sally Deskins’s invitation, I participated in a poetry reading a few weeks ago and brought to it flyers advertising The Laughing Game. And, of course, interviews help! So I’ll say it here: please buy my book!

What advice would you offer someone about to begin promoting their first chapbook during its pre-sale period?

Figure out an approach that works for you. Think about what promotion methods generally pique your interest, and start there. I appreciate candidness and humor, so I’ve been trying to be direct with my friends and acquaintances that sales of my book during the pre-sale period influence its print run and the Press’s confidence in me as a dynamic author. I think I’ve even said, “Help me convince the Press that they didn’t make a mistake by publishing my chapbook!”

Where can we order The Laughing Game? You want to go to there!

What current projects are you working on?

My new project is a full-length book manuscript that considers the lives and experiences of today’s young girls. I’ve always written about my own childhood and I’m interested in representing the stories of other girls. More generally, I’m interested in how female poets choose to remember and make sense of their childhood. I’ve noticed that, compared to male poets, not enough female poets write about this time in their lives, perhaps because it can seem like a time of ignorance and vulnerability, but it’s also a time of discovery and empowerment. Lately, I’m having fun writing poems that imagine controversial women—Serena Williams, Courtney Love—as young girls.

Inspirations and influences: Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Lucille Clifton, Tony Hoagland

Residence: Lincoln, NE

Job and education: Managing Editor of Prairie Schooner, BA from Auburn University, MFA from University of Florida, PhD (forthcoming) from University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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